Art History and Political Imagination

On 31 May 2019, I participated in a roundtable discussion, structured around the question, “Why Does Art History Matter?” The panel was part of a day-long event organized by several doctoral students in the PhD program in Art History at the University of Toronto (where I hold a graduate faculty appointment). I want to thank Samantha Chang and Brittany Myburgh for the invitation, and for all of their efforts in their organization of a truly impressive, lively, and informative series of discussions.

Below are the comments that I prepared and delivered.

In my brief response to the question that has been posed to us, I will say a few things about why art history matters politically. Today, for obvious and ample reasons, there are calls for a renewal of political imagination. Such a reviving entails not only re-imagining the political, but also understanding the ways in which the imagination itself can be political. This is where art history can play a role and matter, given its commitment to images, the source of which obviously lie—at least to a large extent—in the imagination (i.e. the pure potential to see, to envision, to visually speculate, to invent and to create). But the question then arises: what is the source of the imagination? Answer: the unimaginable (the imagination’s potential to be and not to-be) or: “the imagination with no more images” (as Giorgio Agamben has phrased it in his book Nymphs).

It might sound strange to argue, given its study of images, that art history can matter, and matter politically, to the extent that it attends to the imagination absent (or we might say, “free”) of images. Yet this is exactly the argument I would want to make. I say “would want to” because the time that we’ve been allotted, while justifiably brief, does not allow me to fully elaborate. Nonetheless, allow me to make the following points in summary:
  1. It is difficult to see the world today, not because we are not seeing things, but because we are seeing (or merely “looking at”) too much.
  2. This inundation of images has curtailed the possibility, the capacity, and the reach of the imagination—political, artistic and other wise.
  3. Just as much as the imagination itself cannot be seen, but is instead the source of imaginative vision, it needs to retain its potential to not-see/not-image, as much as its potential to see and to render images.
  4. In other words, the imagination must retain its source in the unimaginable, which is its power to operate free from prescribed or pre-given images. Therein lies what is not yet imagined, and the possibility of imagining things differently.
  5. But that not-yet and that possibility only remain viable to the extent that the seeable—the capacity or potential to see—does not only move in the direction of the seen (including in the form of visible images—art history’s ostensible domain), but also when the seeable can shift to the unseeable.
  6. The power of the imagination lies in that slide from the seeable to the unseeable, as much as in the move from the seeable to the seen.
  7. For art history to matter, it cannot devote itself only to the visible and the image, but must also preserve (returning now to Agamben) the non-reified and in-appropriable space of the imagination. A space that is only imaginable as being without images, thanks to the seemingly endless proliferation of works of art, each of which in its singularity exemplifies the lack of art historical closure, and thereby testifies to the sense that not everything has been seen, imaged or imagined.
  8. Just as much as there is no universal principle according to which art history does its work, and just as much as no one particular work is essentially of greater art historical value than any other, there is also no final art historical example. Art history matters—including politically—in its understanding of this lack of universality, sovereign exceptionality, and determined finality.

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